Orson ran through the empty bazaar. It was always unnerving and strange, when closed, silent, dark, the stalls’ entrances grated. But that night many of the shop owners and managers had left their stalls truly alone, which meant the slight background noise of the people who lived adjacent to their mobile businesses was also gone. Orson had spent days in the bazaar conducting interviews, but it seemed immense and powerful, while empty. Without the loud tourists and assorted attractions, he could fully appreciate the incredible engineering and scientific ingenuity on display.
At that moment, Orson could hear only himself, his breathing, and his footfalls.
He suspected that the Archers had some method of traveling through the crawler’s support structures, the ventilation ducts and maintenance passageways, some barely large enough to stand upright. He also suspected they’d be aiming for a quick departure, after their failure to apprehend Augustin.
Orson had used precious time with the Sabre threat toward Enoa, and he hoped he still had time to catch up with the remaining archers, before they fled or before they crossed paths with the Sabres and their advanced weaponry. He had lost sight of the Sabre who’d rocketed away and feared the great speed of the powered armor. Even without the authentic propulsion systems, the vintage suits were still frighteningly fast in the air.
Orson ignited his own repulsor. He entered a controlled fall, down multiple levels. He tried to ignore the nauseating view of the atrium’s central column, its lights still silently blinking.
Orson arrived on level six, the level of the wobbling windmills and the thin gantry that allowed for their maintenance. He could think of four potential exits for the Archers: the roof, the space between the treads at the ground, the original doors on the crawler’s base transport, or the windmill repair gantry. He doubted they’d repeat the roof escape, after they’d been seen leaving that way before, so he chose to check the gantry.
Orson still had no idea how they were getting into and out of the crawler, but he chose that path. It was the closest potential exit.
He ran between two empty stalls, swiped his keycard at the access passageway door, and charged into the corridor, aiming for the external hatch at the hallway’s midpoint. He took a repulsor-aided leap that landed him right beside the hatch. Even through the soundproofed wall, he could hear the slight clanking of the rising and falling windmills.
He saw the archers through the porthole, almost thirty, more than he’d seen before, more than he knew existed. They were huddled together. His view was too limited to see what they were doing.
Orson keyed open the hatch and was immediately struck with a blast of wind. He was thankful, as usual, for his heavy gear. Before he could step through the hatch, he had a dozen arrows aimed at him.
“I’m here to talk,” he raised his hands, palms outward. “I want your evidence. I want to fix this before people get really hurt. Let me help. If you have evidence against the Sabres, help me get to the bottom of it all.”
“You helped the Sabres take two of us,” the usual speaker yelled. “You had your partner abduct my own flesh and blood.” She aimed an arrow of her own at Orson. The other archers turned away and began constructing two of their small framework aircraft. They worked with practiced speed. Orson knew he had little time. “Now, you want to talk?”
“I didn’t help the Sabres do anything,” Orson said. “I want proof against them, if you have it. Please, you say you have all this information, but you’ve shown me none of it. I’m in the best position to take them down, if they’re truly a threat.”
“You can’t be trusted,” the speaker yelled, shouting over the windmills’ rumbling. They had completed their build-a-rockets and began to climb aboard. “You fought us, even now that you’ve met the Sabres.”
“You were here to kidnap someone,” Orson say. “So yeah, I did fight you. I fight kidnappers. I’m anti-kidnapping. And I’m sorry if your friends are captives now as a result of that, but I only had your relative taken to talk with him. If it weren’t for us, he would be with the Sabres now too. My partner put herself at personal risk to shield him from the wannabe Starship Trooper. I will do everything in my power to keep him and all of you from the Sabres, if they are what you say they are. I have an idea.” Orson pointed to his coat. “I’d like to give you a spare commlink. It’s tightbeam. We can figure this out.”
“Orson Gregory conspiring with the criminals!” Brett Nalrik’s distorted voice boomed from the sky. The archers looked up. Orson heard a sudden sound, the roar of multiple jetpacks.
Energy bolts rained down. The Archers responded with a volley of arrows. Orson didn’t know what the Archer’s arrows could do, but he’d seen enough of their bizarre technology to be wary. He drew his sword in his right hand and triggered the blaster to fall into his left.
Orson followed the sudden violence with his HUD, trying to find an opening to somehow stop the carnage.
Two of the energy blasts struck archers, and they fell to the gantry, unmoving. Most of the arrows issued small concussion blasts or smokescreens as they hit the armor of the flying attackers. But one of the arrows issued an electric discharge, and it took one of the Sabres directly in the jetpack. The pack shut off. The man screamed as he fell. The other Sabres flew down after him, as he spiraled, helpless, toward the ground. This gave the Archers enough time to climb aboard their build-a-rockets, dragging their motionless comrades with them.
“Take the comm.” Orson rushed after the Archers. He retrieved his spare communicator. “I’ll go after the Sabres, but we need to talk.” He tried to run to the speaker, but she leveled another arrow at him as she jumped back onto the last seat on the aircraft. Orson dove backward through the open crawler hatch, as thrust plumes burst from the rear of the two craft. They blasted away.
A long, sustained beam of neon blue energy lanced from the ground. It fired straight into the sky, like a reversed bolt of lightning. The beam arced toward the build-a-rockets.
Orson launched himself over the gantry, leaping between two of the windmills. He fired his repulsor, using it to guide his descent. He fell away from the machinery sounds and finally heard the noises of the crowd. There were shouts and screams, car horns blaring.
Orson heard one other sound, a sustained hum. He used his HUD to find the source of the beam, the source of the hum, somewhere on the ground. He saw four figures, alone. The crowd had parted away from them, fleeing in all directions, leaving the armored men beside two food trucks and a pre-fab wooden stall. Two of the Sabres supported a third. The fourth held his left arm outward, the barrel of a massive gun where the hand should be.
Brett Nalrik hadn’t been boasting. He actually had a Strateren arm cannon.
Orson deactivated his repulsor. He needed to fall faster, and he couldn’t risk actually propelling himself face-first at the ground. That was a trick he’d seldom used. So he let himself fall. He plummeted and watched warnings tick by on his HUD. He heard his proximity alarms begin. He saw Nalrik’s the beam weapon swing through one of the two build-a-rockets, as it attempted to escape.
Nalrik’s aim wasn’t perfect, but he clipped one of the aircraft’s wings. It spiraled down toward the snowy ground. Orson couldn’t tell if the aircraft was angling toward the crowd, below. The Strateren beam ceased firing. Orson didn’t know why. He didn’t know enough about that type of weapon to guess.
He reignited his repulsor at a gradually-increasing thrust, just thirty feet above the ground. The Sabres looked up toward him. Orson aimed his fall for Brett Nalrik. He needed to keep the fire away from the Archers. There was no other way he could intervene. He couldn’t exactly catch the falling build-a-rocket. His flight capabilities weren’t nearly that good. But he could fight the men on the ground.
One of the Sabres supporting their fallen comrade lifted his blaster. Orson could block the standard energy bolts, with his sword guided by his HUD, but he didn’t know what he could do against the arm cannon.
He was about to find out.
The neon blue energy blasted from the cannon. It was aimed right at Orson’s face. His sword was already raised and its fire met the intense blast of power from the arm cannon.
The energy from the colliding weapons exploded at the point of contact and sent a shockwave in all directions. Orson wrenched away, but he was still thrown backward, still falling toward the ground. The arm cannon’s burst ceased, but other energy attacks arced at him. One of them struck him in the shoulder. It didn’t puncture the armor, but it did smolder the coat. Orson struck at the mark with the back of his left hand.
Orson landed on the ground, in a slushy mess. He could finally properly face the Sabres. All four men looked at him, aimed their weapons at him. Even the man who had fallen from the sky, the one who still had an arrow buried in his jetpack, even he raised a sidearm. Nalrik fired his beam again. Orson couldn’t risk jumping away from the strike. He didn’t know how far the beam might fly or who it might hit. Orson raised his sword.
Like before, the two energies released an explosion when they met. Like before, the arm cannon shut off when its beam encountered the warring power. Orson used this. He fired his repulsor the moment it deactivated and blasted himself above the snowy ground toward the men.
“You’re actually the assclown I thought you were,” Orson landed only feet from the Sabres. “Let’s not even talk about you silencing witnesses to your crimes. That can wait. Imagine if you hit their engine and it exploded over the crowd. You could have killed dozens of people.”
Their only reaction was to keep their weapons trained on him.
“Stand down. Only chance,” Orson said. “You can surrender your weapons and come with me or I’m gonna have to really hurt you. Your armor takes away most of my nonlethal options.”
“Your little matchstick won’t save the Archers,” Brett Nalrik called. “You saw it. I don’t know why my Uncle…”
Orson didn’t wait for the man to speak. He jumped most of the distance between himself and the Sabres. Nalrik didn’t fire again, not that close to the inevitable explosion that their clashing weapons would cause.
But the other Sabres let out another volley of energy. Nalrik drew a small pistol with his free hand and fired, as well. Orson managed to block most of it with the fire sword, but two of the bolts grazed his coat, adding more burned streaks to the already shabby fabric.
Orson felt a vibration at his thigh – his commlink. Enoa was trying to reach him. Was she calling to give him a ‘home-safe’ message?
Or had something happened?
The Sabres ceased their attack when their great volley failed. They kept their weapons trained on him, but they did not speak. He knew they were likely talking to one another inside their helmets, external speakers off. Orson kept his eyes on them. He waited for them to make their next move. Maybe just distracting the Sabres was enough for the Archers to get away. What had become of the build-a-rocket that had crashed? He had no idea.
The comm vibrated again.
Orson hadn’t hooked his comm to his bandana. He couldn’t spare a hand to answer, not while facing down the Sabres.
“Are you laying down your arms or am I sending you back to Uncle Milo with some assembly required?” Orson changed his sword grip, middle of the hilt, slightly better reach.
“How do you plan to do this four to one?” Nalrik asked. “You’re good at hopping around, but you’re not getting close enough to use that sword. Not getting past my arm cannon.” He thumped his chest plate with the cannon. “And if something happens to me, my man watching your ship will burn out its shield and kill your little girlfriend.”
“You’re a real moron sending your boys after my ship,” Orson said. Girlfriend? He could only mean Enoa. She was followed, after all. “The Aesir will tear the inside of the crawler to ribbons before it lets you at my crew.”
“Did you tell her how dangerous it is to turn on high grade particle shields indoors?” Nalrik asked. “It wasn’t a bad trap for my friend Jeffrey. Poor bastard ran right into the damn thing, but who would expect she’d leave it up? Even with the power of the great legendary Aesir, unless you’ve got your baby fine tuned, juuuuust right, it’ll burn out eventually. Could explode.”
“Have your men withdraw.” Orson truly didn’t know exactly how the Aesir’s shield would react inside. He’d never tested it indoors, except very briefly, during the initial Archer bomb-scare. Now he had no choice but to aim to really harm the Sabres. Mission be damned. He got Enoa into this mess. He would get her out of it. He drew his comm and clicked it on. “Enoa, have Ruby shut off the particle shield. Quick thinking, but I’m taking it from here.”
“What about the Sabre outside?” Enoa asked. He could hear the mix of worry and exhaustion in her voice. He also heard a distant murmuring. Someone else was speaking, a voice he couldn’t properly hear – the archer prisoner?
“The rad shield will still be up, but you tell him unless he wants to lose his employer, he can lay down his arms and get away from you and my boat.” Orson kept his eyes on the armored Sabres. “I already…”
“You didn’t tell her,” Nalrik laughed. “And Ruby? How many chicks do you have working in that gross-ass camper?” Orson shut off the comm’s receiver. “Do you have a harem? Or will only girls listen to you? I don’t totally get it, Gregory. That Enoa girl managed to sneak back to your ship and knock out Jeffrey, but she doesn’t know anything. Is she your ward or your pet?”
“You give her a little time.” Orson switched the comm receiver back on. “She’ll be deadlier than the two of us put together, Nalrik. Not that you add much to the total. Just tonight, she took out one of the archers hand-to-hand. Can you say the same?”
“Are you sure about the shield?” Enoa asked. “I’ve got the eleven and the one O’Clocks online.”
“Yeah,” Orson said. “You did a great job. Shut it down. If that guy makes a move, shoot him, and you tell me about it. What do you think of adding a suit of armor to the living room? It won’t be quite as classy as something from an Earth culture. It’ll look like we’ve got some weird overpriced movie thing…”
“You fight me, Gregory,” Nalrik yelled. “I’ll add your repulsor to my extensive armor collection.” The other Sabres laughed.
“Just come a little closer, Brett,” Orson said. “And I’ll give it to you.” Orson swung his sword with a flourish. Nalrik aimed his arm cannon at him. The other Sabres also aimed their weapons.
Before they did anything, there came the sound of engines approaching from behind, approaching fast. Orson didn’t know whether to jump aside. All he needed was a whole Sabres Unlimited Cavalry to come riding in. But he didn’t risk turning away from the known threat. He prepared his boot for a quick jump and kept an eye on the proximity sensor.
Several vehicles came to a stop behind Orson. He heard doors and footfalls, booted feet through snow. The Sabres lowered their weapons at right around the same time Chief Morita arrived beside Orson.
“Brett Nalrik,” Morita said. “Sabres associates. You were authorized for supportive defense only, but you acted without request from Collective Security. You committed six other violations of the warranted defense code. It is the decision of the Solar Saver Collective Board of Directors that your Unlimited Defense Force stand down, immediately.”
“Are we under arrest?” Brett asked, his demeanor suddenly different, almost dejected. “My only hope was to protect this place, after all you’ve done to build it.”
“This is a decision of many,” Morita said. “Not one. The Sabres Unlimited has no formal affiliation with the Solar Saver Collective, pending further investigation. You and your men, personally, will be confined to your quarters. Remove your armor and weapons for confiscation.”
The Sabres stood in complete silence. Orson had no doubt that they spoke to each other in their helmets, maybe even to superiors. Orson spared a glance to the security around him. He saw at least twenty personnel, all heavily armed.
“Mr. Nalrik,” Morita said. “This order takes effect immediately.”
“I think we’ll leave instead,” Nalrik said. “But I’ve got a message for you and for everyone up there in that crawler.” He pointed up at the massive machine. “That could be mine. I could have kept the transport. Sabres Unlimited could easily have built our own crawler, but I chose to give it to you. You would have nothing without my help.”
All four Sabres blasted away, two physically carrying the one whose jetpack had been pierced by the arrow. Orson could actually see the arrow wobbling in a plate on the back of the machine.
“Hey, the guy watching the Aesir just left,” Enoa said through the comm. “He threw his friend over his shoulder and just walked out.”
“Great,” Orson said. “You should be able to power down. Then you can make sure the archer’s secure, if you’d be so kind.”
“I will,” she said. “Sorry about the shield thing.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be back soon.” He pocketed the comm and turned to Morita.
“Thank you,” Orson said. “I can’t believe how out of control they were. I would’ve had the…”
“Captain,” Morita said. “The Board has made a second decision. Your plan was a mistake.” He faced Orson, his expression blank. “Those things the Archers showed our guests. Horrible things. People dragged from their homes. Buildings destroyed with people still inside them. So many corpses. We need to investigate these claims, but the Archers cannot be allowed to show these images. They cannot be allowed to have control of our facilities.”
“And if the Sabres actually did that shit in your name, isn’t it better you know about it and that everyone knows about it?”
“This could have been chaos,” Morita said. “You, the Sabres, the Archers, three unpredictable parties, with us caught in the middle.” He pursed his lips. “You have tonight to execute your plan with the archer you have.
“After that, if you don’t have a solution, your prisoner comes with us, and you and your ship can leave.”